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How to Shorten the Long Presidential Campaign—A Commentary by Stephen L. Carter ’79

The following commentary was posted on Bloomberg.com on January 5, 2012.

How to Shorten the Long Presidential Campaign
By Stephen L. Carter ’79

In the midst of his 1860 presidential campaign against Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas announced that he was leaving Washington to visit his ailing mother in upstate New York. Along the way, Douglas made campaign stops and speeches throughout New England.

According to the historian Paul F. Boller Jr.’s book, “Presidential Campaigns,” newspapers were agog. One editorial contended that Douglas “demeans himself … as no other candidate ever yet has, who goes about begging, imploring, and beseeching the people to grant him his wish.” Republicans distributed satirical fliers titled “A Boy Lost!” to enlist the aid of the public in tracking down Mrs. Douglas’s missing son, who had vanished on his way to New York: “He has been heard from at Boston, Portland, Augusta, and Bangor.”

The reason for the surprise was that nobody had ever seen such a thing. Candidates for president were not supposed to go out on the hustings. Tradition forbade it. Such eagerness was seen as evidence of the candidate’s unfitness for the office. True, Andrew Jackson had done a bit of campaigning, but the political establishment of the 19th century always regarded Jackson as a vulgarian, exactly the sort of undignified fellow who would do something as low-class as asking for votes.

This tale comes to mind this week as the exhausted Republican presidential contenders finally leave Iowa, where over the past year several have all but taken up residence. This immersion in the politics of a single small Midwestern state is a symbol of what has become known as the “long campaign” -- the quest for the presidency that stretches into years. The endless slog through fundraisers and town-hall meetings, all in the quest for primary votes, might seem to bring “the people” into the selection process. But its sheer mind-blanking endlessness has become poisonous to electoral democracy.

From JFK to Today

Ironically, it was 52 years ago this week that Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts announced his candidacy for president. He wasn’t running in the Iowa caucuses, which nobody really paid attention to until more than a decade later. He hadn’t spent the previous year crisscrossing the country to raise funds, or for that matter appearing on national television with his opponents, offering scripted, empty 30-second responses to complicated questions. Serious meetings with potential backers had begun only a few months earlier. There was time back then to ponder. By the time the young senator made up his mind, the general election was only 10 months away.

Nowadays, such an approach is unimaginable. The faces of the candidates are constantly before us. But sometimes the old ways are better. Consider the case of Douglas’s opponent in that 1860 election, Lincoln, properly ranked by most historians as the greatest president in American history. Lincoln made no official campaign stops. In keeping with the tradition of the day, he contented himself by corresponding with potential supporters and, on rare occasion, meeting them behind closed doors. Public appearances were widely considered beneath the dignity of any man who sought to lead a great nation.

Similarly, when Lincoln ran for re-election in 1864, he largely stayed in Washington and its environs. True, he was not above horse-trading. He nominated Salmon P. Chase as chief justice of the Supreme Court, after Chase agreed to first give campaign speeches for the incumbent in his native Ohio -- but Lincoln himself stayed off the campaign trail.

The first candidate to be taken seriously as he traveled the country seeking votes was William Jennings Bryan in 1896. But even then, his campaign was seen as something of an oddity. By the early 20th century, candidates were making whistlestop tours. But the campaign itself still did not really begin until the conventions; a man could wait until the very last minute to declare himself.

Jimmy Carter’s Innovation

Political historians tell us that we should thank the anarchy of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the unending primaries that have led to the world of the permanent campaign. After Chicago, the Democratic establishment began expanding the role of primaries in selecting its nominee, hoping to calm the battles that were dividing the party -- although it is hardly likely that anyone expected the primaries to become, within a decade, more important than the party leaders.

Jimmy Carter famously exploded the old model in 1976, by deciding to bet his candidacy on Iowa, whose caucuses until then had not been taken seriously, and all but changing his official residence to the state during the year prior to the election. Later candidates began to follow suit. Add in the 24-hour commentary cycle, and the race to the bottom was on -- with the bottom, in this case, the long campaign.

The time and money invested is doubly foolish given the substantial evidence essentially confirming what is known as the “minimal effects” hypothesis -- the theory that actual campaigning has little or no effect on voting behavior. Social scientists are able to build models that predict election results with a fair degree of accuracy without accounting in any respect for campaign activity.

I suppose one might argue for the entertainment value of the long campaign -- certainly there are plenty of blogs and talk shows that are fired by nothing else -- and if some people would rather spend their time cheering on another partisan screed than reading a truly challenging book, so be it. But it is not at all obvious that this form of amusement represents a net social gain, given the billions of dollars that must be raised to support it. (And the entertainment itself can become ridiculous: Just days after the 2008 election, one of the cable talk shows held a roundtable discussion on the leading presidential contenders for ... 2016.)

The truth is that the long campaign has not served us well. Lyndon Johnson might have survived something like the current process, but Lincoln would have stood no chance. (William Seward was the likeliest long campaigner that year.) George Washington, if the historians have his character right, would not have wanted the bother.
Two Suggested Reforms

We need to replace the long campaign with the short campaign -- to fit presidential politics into a space that allows candidates a chance to reflect and learn, and the rest of us a year or more of peace. From the many proposals that have been put forward to remedy our current difficulty, two seem particularly worthy of mention:

[1] Repeal the $2,500 limit on individual campaign contributions. The need to raise lots of money is one of the principal drivers of the long campaign. The academic evidence largely suggests that the contribution limits, like other attempted financial reforms, simply increase the advantage of incumbency. Many of the arguments in favor of the limitations posit the evil billionaire who will fund a candidate he will then control. But as long as disclosure is required, so we know who is paying for whom, it isn’t obvious that the billionaire shouldn’t be allowed to try. The quixotic 1968 presidential run of Senator Eugene McCarthy, a campaign that forced President Johnson from the race, was funded largely by a small number of wealthy contributors, led by the philanthropist Stewart Mott. In the current climate, McCarthy probably would not have run, and our public dialogue would have been worse for it.

[2] Either reduce the number of primaries or find ways to increase the number of unpledged convention delegates. The more delegates that remain up for grabs, the later a candidate can decide to get into the race. There is no particular reason to reward those who choose to start their run early. Our ideal should be to nominate the best possible candidates and elect the best possible president, not to drive potential leaders to the sidelines because they choose not to spend two or three years in nonstop pursuit of the purple.

Roger Angell, the brilliant baseball essayist for the New Yorker, once commented that professional sports had undergone a change for the worse, from a series of discrete events to which one looked forward, to a nonstop flow of news in which one is immersed. Elections are like that, too. The campaign never ends. No doubt, the start will keep coming sooner and sooner, unless we decide to stop it. The long campaign is swallowing the electoral process, and that is a most undemocratic way to do business.

(Stephen L. Carter, a novelist, professor of law at Yale University and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)